Study Materials for Religious Education

Section 03: The changing landscape of spirituality: Part A: A need-to-know topic for contemporary religious education
Any meaningful and relevant religious education, in school or other contexts, needs to take into account the recent, extensive socio-cultural change that has affected the way people perceive the spiritual and moral dimensions to contemporary life. Educators need to understand how and why secularisation has developed over the past centuries and particularly within the last 50 years.

As for all sections, view the introductory video. Then listen to the content lecture audio while attending to the main text file on this page. Arrange to have the audio file and the text page open together so you can work your way through both in an integrated fashion. To have both the text and audio files working simultaneously, either (A) open a second window with the same web address to start the audio file and for pausing/playing the audio. OR (B) right click the icon and using the "save link" option, download the audio file completely and it can then be played/paused in the separate audio app, while the text file remans open in the browser.

Introductory video mp4 to this section

1. Introductory video giving an introduction to the content covered in this section.

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Brief overview of content of this section

While many people will acknowledge that there have been significant changes in religiosity and spirituality over the last century, there is often not a good understanding of how and why this change has occurred. This section sets out to try to answer the how and the why questions.

Initially, distinctions are made between the spiritual and the religious, and between spirituality and religiosity. The distinctions are understood in terms of a basic human spirituality that is implied in the values that people have, and this may or may not be informed by religious belief.

Change factors bringing about secularisation are examined: – movement to the cities, the rise of scientific thought, education, separation of church and state etc.

The focus is on the changed cultural meanings that people draw on for their understanding of both life and themselves. The cultural meanings that informed a traditional, mediaeval Christian spirituality are considered. And this can be compared with the more existential, consumer-oriented relatively secular meanings that inform the spirituality of most people in secularised Western countries.

A number of audiovisual presentations are used to highlight the differences between traditional religious thinking and contemporary secular thinking.

Audio lecture mp3 file of this section

2. The audio file lecture
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This presents the content for this section -- the main presentation and principal source of information on the topic. The audio lecture ( 50 minutes) will refer every now and again to particular parts of the accompanying text below that will easily be identified -- here you will need to pause the audio and look at the pertinent parts of the text and audiovisual presentations..

The written text for this section (Study the text in conjunction with the audio lecture)


1. Why the construct spirituality has a pivotal position in discussions of spiritual and moral development
2. Relationship between the spiritual and the religious – and between spirituality and religiosity
3.  Church school religious education and the changing landscape of spirituality
4.  Why the changing landscape of contemporary spirituality needs to be understood
5.  Becoming more aware of how the landscape of spirituality has changed
6.  Trying to understand the forces and factors that have brought about changes in contemporary spirituality
7.  Understanding change in spirituality in terms of change in influential cultural meanings
Change in Cultural meanings
Two main aspects of change in cultural meanings
8.  Cultural meanings in a traditional religious spirituality
9.  Changes away from a traditional religious spirituality understood in terms of change in cultural meanings
10.  Cultural meanings associated with a relatively secular, eclectic, individualistic spirituality
Table 1Contrasts between the cultural meanings underpinning traditional and contemporary spiritualities
11.  Initial conclusions:  General implications for church school religious education from the interpretation of change in the landscape of spirituality

The changing landscape of spirituality: How and why there has been such great change in spirituality and in the expression of religion

This and the next two sections set out to help participants develop perspective on links between spiritual/moral development and religious education. 

This section is not so much about spirituality as such, but it is concerned with how the ‘landscape' of spirituality has changed so much over the past 60 years -- changes that the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said really go back to the 14th century. Religious educators need to develop a panoramic perspective on this changed landscape so that they can draw on religious traditions, while at the same time being in constructive dialogue with contemporary understandings of personal/spiritual development.

1.  Why the construct spirituality has a pivotal position in discussions of spiritual and moral development

The diagram below attempts to show how a range of religious/ecclesial constructs related to people's spiritual and moral development sit in relationship with a number of new, and some old, constructs that are used to explore personal development and what it means to be a human person.  In other words, it shows how the words and constructs commonly used in religious discourse relate to those in a secular psychological discourse.

Where society is secularised, traditional religious words for exploring spiritual/moral development no longer have the same currency they once had;  and more general personal development words, that are not necessarily religious but which can be open to religion, are needed for meaningful and constructive educational discourse.  The argument below helps explain how spirituality sits in a pivotal, central position in discussions of spiritual and moral development, because it has strong roots in each area of discourse – both the religious and the secular.

Some people think that a lot of contemporary writing about spirituality is vague and ‘wishy washy' because it covers such a wide range of ideas from traditional religiosity through to thinking like new age, which at times is proposed as an alternative to religion.  At times this judgment is warranted.  But spirituality is a construct worth fighting for.  It has significant roots in both the religious sphere and the ordinary secular human sphere.  The word originated within Christianity;  until relatively recent times, the words ‘religious' and ‘spiritual' were synonymous – spirituality was the equivalent of religiosity.  It also has connections with contemporary secular constructs used for interpreting personal, spiritual and moral development.  It is strategically located like a connecting bridge connecting traditional religious ways of seeing people within God's universe with contemporary secular, psychological ways of looking at personal development –  such as resilience, wellbeing etc.  And its other valuable quality is its growing connection with education (both religious and secular).  These relationships are illustrated diagrammatically below. The diagram is just to give a picture of trends. To try to remember or understand all of the detail is not necessary. It is explained in the linked audio file below. If it looks confusing at first sight, then you are on the right track. Because it is confusing and there is a need to try to avoid this.

Note from the previous section how the extensive range of ecclesial constructs can be ambiguous if you apply them to classroom religious education without much precision. But also note that you could have just as much confusion in the secular sphere if you tried to apply all of those words – many of which become jargon like – to try to explain personal development. So one of the conclusions you might draw from this is to be very careful about how you use constructs. Try not to use too many. And be precise in your definitions. And perhaps we could heed the advice – keep it simple!

Figure 1  The pivotal place of spirituality in discourse about meaning and purpose to life and how it might relate to education in general and religious education in particular

Click for audio file explaining the diagram

Spirituality, though difficult to define, can function like a mediating central construct in interpreting the spiritual/moral dimensions to religious life (in various religions), as well as in interpreting lives that do not engage with religion.  Spirituality is like a ‘meeting place' for those interested in the spiritual dimension of the religious sphere, and for those concerned with the spiritual dimension to the secular sphere – hopefully to promote mutual interest in both spheres.  This mediating function is becoming increasingly evident in contemporary writing on spirituality and education.

The lower half of the diagram, covering what might be called the basic human spirituality sphere, lists a range of psychological and social constructs that are being used in public discourse, especially in education, to interpret personal development in ways that are not necessarily religious, even though individuals may remain open to being informed by the religious dimension.

For religious educators based within a religious school, there is a critical need to become literate in these constructs.  They help explore the emergence and function of non-religious spiritualities, which now characterise the majority of students in religious schools.  They also provide a common language for re-interpreting and applying traditional religious wisdoms and theology that may have become inaccessible to modern people.  This is essentially the task of recontextualising the religious tradition, seeking to make it relevant to contemporary needs and issues (See references under Boeve, 2007, 2011).

2. Relationships between the spiritual and the religious -- and between spirituality and religiosity

Spirituality: Spirituality is defined here as the natural genetic capacity of human beings to acknowledge either consciously or by implication in their words and actions a spiritual and moral dimension to human life and culture . The spirituality of an individual is implied in the values that show through in their actions, words and thinking.

Firstly there is a need to see how the spiritual and the religious are related. A useful way of understanding the relationship is to regard the religious as a basic human spirituality informed by, and expressed through an overlay of cultural religious meanings.

Table 1. Summary of relationships between the constructs spiritual, religious, spirituality and religiosity


The spiritual is the natural dimension to life that includes:- thinking and feelings about transcendence;  ideas about a creator or creative force in the cosmos;  human values;  sense of meaning and purpose to life;  love and care for self and others;  sense of stewardship for the earth and its flora and fauna;  the aesthetic.


Being religious means being spiritual in a particular way as informed by the beliefs, practices and traditions of a religious group.  It usually includes a sense of personal relationship with god, belief in an afterlife and identification with, and participation in a local religious community.  The religious is usually informed by a theology;  and it participates in a ritual life and prayer, as well as relating to religious symbols, art and music.


Spirituality is the way in which a spiritual/moral dimension enters into, or is implied in, the thinking and behaviour of individuals. All humans by virtue of their values and behaviour thus have a BASIC HUMAN SPIRITUALITY -- even if this is not articulate d.

Religiosity (or religious spirituality)

Religiosity is a religious spirituality with engagement in religious activities and thinking;  personal and communal prayer and participation in religious rituals in a community of faith are prominent.  Religiosity is a spirituality that is clearly referenced to religion.
A religious spirituality is where a basic human spirituality is informed and motivated by religious beliefs and commitments. The purpose of religion could be interpreted as trying to enhance people's basic human spirituality.

A religious spirituality consciously draws on elements of religion for the articulation, expression and enhancement of people's basic human spirituality . The person who is a practising religious individual indicates that the core of their spirituality is in a personal relationship with God. And they consciously spend time trying to enhance, express, develop and practice their spirituality; hence the attention given to understandings of scripture and theology, engagement in prayer and religious rituals.

3.  Church school religious education and the changing landscape of spirituality

Understanding and acknowledging the changed situation of spirituality is crucial for the future of church school religious education.  Handing on the faith tradition remains the official, central concern for church school religious education.  However, because of significant changes in the landscape of contemporary spirituality, related to social/cultural change, a relatively exclusive focus on ‘handing on the tradition', while still remaining valuable and important, is no longer an adequate approach to religious education.  The majority of pupils and their families are no longer regular, practising members of any local community of faith.  Their spiritual/moral needs are not being adequately met by religion curricula that are geared mainly towards regular church going families and the maintenance/continuity of the Church.  This lack of congruence triggers various problems and issues in religious education.  Addressing this hiatus is important for the future development of religious education theory, curriculum and pedagogy.

As referred to in Section 1, the constitution of church schools in Australia today is consistent with this view;  they are no longer just Church institutions (like seminaries and theological colleges), but ‘semi-state' schools funded by Commonwealth and State governments.  The religious education component of the school's mission needs to be more relevant to the spiritual and moral needs of all its students.  It is argued that steps taken in this direction will also be valuable and not compromising for the pupils who are regular church goers.

Church schools and their religious education need to show how they are contributing to the common good;  and while this involves retaining specifically church religious interests, it also needs to flow over into the potential enhancement of Australian education generally.  This can be fostered initially through leadership in the national discourse about promoting the spiritual/moral dimension to schooling for all Australian children.

4.  Why the changing landscape of contemporary spirituality needs to be understood

There has been such great change in the landscape of contemporary spirituality in Australia and other Westernised countries that the traditional framework of religious meanings within which church school religion curricula are written is out of synch with the spiritual meanings that inform the lives of the majority of their students and parents.  How and why there has been so much change away from traditional religious spirituality needs to be better understood and accepted.

If a religious school is to enhance the basic human spirituality of young people who will never become regular church-goers, a change in orientation in religious education is needed to give more attention to the critical interpretation and evaluation of cultural meanings, while not neglecting the more traditional aim of giving meaningful access to pupils' own religious heritage.

Another key issue in this equation is the apparently significant difference between the spiritualities of children and adolescents, at least as far as the perceptions of religious educators are concerned – children appearing interested and responsive in religion, while adolescents tend to be disinterested (this last issue is taken up in Section 5).

5.  Becoming more aware of how the landscape of spirituality has changed

To help participants become more aware of how much the landscape of spirituality has changed, download and view the powerpoint file below.  The program progresses by clicking to advance to the next slide;  remain connected to the internet to be able to play the video clips that are connected to the powerpoint.

Click photo or text to download and play the powerpoint on changes in the socio-cultural environment from a very traditional religious society to a more secular, individualistic lifestyle where the emphasis is on consumerism and feeling good.  (NOTE: Try downloading the whole file first before playing back while remaining online to enable video links to work.) The presentation tends to oversimplify and even use a humorous slant.  But its intent is to highlight the significant change that is explored further in the text that follows.  What strikes you in the presentation?  What do you think of the various ‘lifestyle' issues that are raised?  Do you see these linked with contemporary basic human spirituality?  Can school and religious education do anything to explore these issues with pupils?  Thinking about these questions can inform your study of the whole unit.

NOTE: You need to click the hyperlinks in slides to see 5 of the videos in the poweroint. If you get a "Windows security" message asking you to log into the server, just click CANCEL and the videos should work OK. You do not have to log in to view the videos.

6.  Trying to understand the forces and factors that have brought about changes in contemporary spirituality

Over the last 60 years, in Westernised countries like Australia, there has been a change from a more traditional religious spirituality to something that is more secular, eclectic, individualistic and self-reliant.  This has been written up in a number of research studies, for example: Smith & Denton, 2005; Crawford & Rossiter, 2006; Mason et al. 2007, Hughes, 2007.  To some extent, this change has been acknowledged in church schools;  but the religion curricula still give the impression that all of the students are, or should be, regular church goers – as if church attendance was to be the end point of their education in spirituality.

A number of psychological and sociological constructs like secularisation, privatisation of religion etc. have been used to describe the significant change in spirituality of people today.  For example, click the link in the left box below to view a table which shows the extensive range of these explanatory constructs.  DON'T BE SHOCKED -- The table is just to show the complexity and extent of this research -- YOU DO NOT HAVE TO STUDY IT. There is no need to follow these up in any detail in this section– the table is just to alert you to the work done to psychological and sociological constructs.

Table of psychological and sociological constructs for interpreting change in spirituality

Click for audio file explaining the table

Secularisation means a decline in the public prominence of religious practice, religious discourse and religious thinking. It means that secularised people are paying less formal, overt attention to what might be called ‘organised religion'. Just how spiritual, how moral, how caring, and how loving they are in their personal interactions may not necessarily be involved in secularisation.

For a religious institution like a Catholic school and for religious educators who have a commitment to the handing on of a religious tradition, the degree of secularisation of adults and young people today can be confronting and distressing. Nevertheless it is a development that is real. Religious educators cannot ignore the reality. They need to understand how and why secularisation has occurred. One can get an impression that Catholic school authorities and religious education authorities are perhaps not aware enough of just how far reaching has been the extent of this change. It is only by knowing and understanding how it has developed and why that educators can take it into account in both content and pedagogy in religious education.

It is suggested that it is more helpful to try to understand secularisation as a culturally influenced phenomenon that needs to be addressed in a positive way and not just as if it was a ‘deficiency'. In other words there is a need for a ‘non-deficit' model for understanding secularisation. This means that instead of trying to fight or combat secularisation, there is a need to work out how do we best educate secularised young people both spiritually and religiously.

Understanding how secularisation has developed under different cultural influences helps religious educators acknowledge both the positives and negatives in secularisation. It is also important to note at the outset that secularisation is just a description of the real changes in the prominence of religion in society. This is different from secularism which is an anti-religion ideology

For quite a number of years, scholars as well is religious people and others have tried to understand what secularisation is and how it has occurred. It is interesting to note that back in 1970 Australian social researcher Dr David Millikan, in a rather prominent television series called The sunburnt soul posed some questions about religion and secularisation in Australia.

Note the program on secularisation in Australia made in 1969-1970 by David Millikan. Petty's cartoon in the powerpoint has some comments by Millikan. Additionally there is a section from the program where he discusses secularisation with people in a pub.

Left: Audiovisual from 1970 from the ABC Sunburnt soul program, showing an awareness of the problem even at that time. Dr David Millikan presented the inquiry.

Right: Bruce Petty cartoon on secularisation from the same program

The following is suggested as a simpler alternative way of looking at how change in spirituality might be interpreted without getting into all of the complexities in the table of sociological constructs looked at earlier, and without getting tied up with the use of the term secularisation which often carries a negative connotation. Somehow there is a need to understand the contemporary situation in other than a deficit model.

7.  Understanding change in spirituality in terms of change in influential cultural meanings

An interpretation of change in spirituality in terms of change in cultural meanings has been developed for the purpose of understanding contemporary spiritualities in other than a deficit model, and without the complexities of the multiple constructs noted in the table referred to above.  Hopefully this interpretation may be more persuasive in getting education authorities and religious educators firstly to accept, rather than condemn or ignore, the significant change in contemporary spirituality;  and then secondly, take steps to address this change positively and constructively in the school religion curriculum.  It also needs to be recognised that, as in society generally, there will be individuals who are very religious in the schools as well as those who are not.  The mix is complex.

If church schools are to offer an education in spirituality that is relevant to the lives of pupils, then there is a need to understand and acknowledge their changed spiritual situation.  Religious education needs to focus more on resourcing and enhancing the basic human spirituality of young people – helping them learn how to better negotiate the spiritual and moral complexities of modern life;  this should be offered unconditionally – whether or not they will ever participate in church life;  and this will be helpful both for those who are involved in a parish and those who are not.

Those whose principal concern is promoting church participation as well as those who do not accord this aim the same priority, need to see that the landscape of spirituality has changed so much that a traditional religious education, linked with a religious spirituality, is no longer adequate in church schools.  For this reason, special attention is given here to charting change in spirituality – especially in terms of the influential factors.  This seeks to develop an interpretation that will be more cogent in persuading religion teachers and education authorities to see the need for a different pattern of emphasis in religious education.  It will propose that a relatively secular spirituality has become ‘normal' for most of the people who associate with church schools today – staff, parents and students, both young and old.  Therefore it needs to be understood and addressed positively, and not negatively in terms of a deficit model that employs words like secular, un-churched, non-practising, non-traditional or non-religious.  Rather than persist with a single unrealistic purpose of trying to re-establish a traditional church-attending, religious spirituality for all, church school religious education needs to offer a broader approach as suggested briefly above.

Explaining change in spirituality through change in Cultural meanings:
Cultural meanings are understood as the sets of socially constructed ideas, values, assumptions and emotions that inform people's thinking and behaviour.  Cultural meanings are distinctive of particular social and ethnic groups and religions;  but they also operate across the social context from family to nation state, and increasingly at a global level.  While there are many cultural meanings in a society, it is possible to identify the sets of meanings with which individuals or groups identify.  They are like the background ideas about life (thinking and assumptions) that people draw on to explain or justify their behaviour.  They condition the way people think about their livesTrying to identify the active cultural meanings for individuals tries to interpret their ‘self interpretations'.

Cultural meanings are often a blend of social, cultural, religious, spiritual and political ideas that are in turn meshed with feelings and values that reinforce the ideas.  People draw on and interact with these cultural meanings when forming their own personal ideas about life.  It is like the ‘atmosphere of meaning' that people are continuously ‘breathing in';  and it is like the immediate ‘thinking/feeling environment' they inhabit which affects how they interpret reality and what they do.  These meanings are associated with various sources – family, social and cultural groups, religion, nation state and the wider popular culture.  Individuals may draw on particular sources or reference groups while shunning others, and they may also draw from a wide range of meanings in an eclectic fashion.  There will be a diversity of responses to the same perceived cultural meanings;  for example, what is ‘liberal' to some will be regarded as ‘harmful' and ‘deviant' by others.  Whatever the idiosyncratic personal meaning they construct, it cannot be fully understood apart from the particular landscape of meaning within which it developed.  Some will be both conscious and articulate about the cultural meanings they have adopted;  others may be relatively unaware of their social conditioning – as if it was just ‘natural reality' which is not usually questioned.

Religion can be prominent and influential in people's accepted cultural meanings.  Others can identify with religion nominally while their behaviour suggests that they are really operating more out of the common cultural meanings in their society.  Still others would see their key meanings, and hence their spirituality, as unrelated to religion.

The notion of cultural meanings is a composite scheme that draws on a number of the constructs listed in the table looked at earlier – especially Berger and Luckmann's (1966) understanding of social reality where people's knowledge and behaviour are interpreted as closely related to what they construe to be reality, together with the recognition that social reality is constructed by individuals and groups;  also there is some similarity with symbolic interactionist theory (Blumer, 1969.  Symbolic interactionism considers that individuals develop interpretations of their environment and then act on the basis of those interpretations.  They interpret meanings through the lens of socially created symbols and ideas, thus construing their personal sense of reality within the cultures that impact on and inform their lives.).  Investigating cultural meanings tries to identify and evaluate what appear to be the important, driving ideas and assumptions behind people's thinking and behaviour.  It is essentially interpretive and hypothetical in process;  it acknowledges that individuals may or may not advert to the cultural meanings that affect their behaviour, because these meanings can be taken for granted parts of their social world that do not need articulation, let alone evaluation.

If cultural meanings are not brought into the open for appraisal, they can remain deviously influential because they are then regarded as a natural, but hidden part of the normal fabric of life (c/f the work of sociologist Raymond Williams as discussed in Warren, 1992).  Williams proposed that by starting with the identification and appraisal of cultural meanings, individuals can take up cultural agency, where they can avoid being just passive ‘consumers' of culture by actively contributing to the creation of cultural meanings within their own sphere of influence.  This approach is consistent with much of the thinking in critical theory and critical pedagogy (Darder et al., 2003. Critical theory is a collective term covering a number of theoretical developments in philosophy, sociology, the humanities and social sciences that occurred mainly in the last half of the 20th century.  Influenced by Marxism and structuralism, as well as by more recent trends in post-structuralism and postmodernism, it has a political focus and a concern for social change.  The word ‘critical' is consistent with the special attention it gives to the interpretation and critique of society, particularly the critique of domination – in the pursuit of social justice and the emancipation of marginalised groups.  It tries to penetrate beneath objective appearances to expose the underlying social relationships they often conceal – in other words, exposing, through critical analysis, social relationships that took on the status of things or objects.  For example, a projection of the ‘good life' could be little more than subtly promoting a ‘satisfying consumerism', thus reducing it to the exercise of purchasing power.

Critical pedagogy is concerned with the pedagogical implications of critical theory – mainly for the education of adults, but with an interest in school education.  It calls into question the role of schools in ‘reproducing' society – that is, in reinforcing the assumptions and values of the dominant groups, especially in commerce, and of the ‘industry' of cultural reproduction.).

Cultural meanings serve as communal frames of reference that are available to people in the working out of their own personal frame of reference or personal meaning.  They usually act in ways that are more or less consistent with their personal meanings.  Both personal frame of reference (difficult to characterise) and cultural meanings (more easily identified) are keys to interpreting behaviour.  Hence, identifying cultural meanings and showing how they have changed is a useful way of interpreting change in spirituality.

It is difficult to estimate with accuracy the way in which cultural meanings affect individuals.  It seems to be a natural part of the human condition to have difficulty in determining the extent to which various cultural meanings affect us.  It is often appears easier to see how they may have affected others – even though such interpretations may be incomplete.  But by identifying the range of factors that influence people's cultural and personal frames of reference, we are in a better position to understand personal and social change as it is manifested in spirituality.  And in turn, this interpretation can be useful educationally for helping people look more critically at the cultural meanings that have had a shaping influence on them.  These factors can be life enhancing as well as life inhibiting.  They can extend freedom just as they can limit it.

The educational hope is that individuals become better educated with respect to the social forces that may have a conditioning influence on the way they live their lives.  By interrogating the cultural meanings that affect society and individuals, people are in a better position to make informed choices and to address contemporary spiritual and moral issues (Hill, 1993).  This provides a potentially valuable contribution to religious education (and education generally) both in content and pedagogy;  students could be engaged in a research-oriented process of appraising cultural meanings;  at a personal level, they would have the opportunity to reflect on where their personal frame of reference related, if at all, to the cultural meanings being evaluated.

Two main aspects of change in cultural meanings:   There are:-

Firstly, there is the emergence and dissemination of new cultural meanings;

Secondly, individuals change the cultural meanings to which they are subscribing;  they switch their allegiance to new meanings available in the culture;  this change may be gradual and sometimes almost imperceptible.

Change in cultural meanings is inevitably connected with how they are constructed and communicated.  Human history shows that story-telling and its preservation in writing have been important in the handing on of cultural meanings from generation to generation (See the later section on story-telling) stories are meaning-embedded narratives.  New media for communication have helped maintain and conserve cultural meanings, as well promote the spread of new meanings.  Print, telephony, radio, film and television have contributed, and now there are emails, texting and the internet – together with social media through their social networking sites (E.g. Facebook, Google+, Instagram, YouTube, MySpace and Twitter, Snapchat, and individual blogging etc. etc.)

8.  Cultural meanings in a traditional religious spirituality

Consider the situation of people in 12th century Christian Europe.  For an illiterate peasant leaving his small wooden or mud house, with no windows, and entering a massive cathedral – for example, in Ely, Salisbury or Chartres – the contrast would have been awe inspiring;  the physical ‘house of God' reflected a sense of the divine on earth.  The size and height of the vaulting, the stained glass windows and the frescoes and paintings would have helped communicate a sense of the transcendence and power of god who presided over the world.  Apart from the castles and houses of the nobles, the cathedrals would have dominated the city skyline, symbolic of the dominance of god and religion.  In the small villages, this was replicated in miniature with the local church spire often the most prominent landmark.  The dominance of Christian cultural meanings in 12th century France was evident in one estimate that there was one ecclesiastical structure of some kind for about every 200 people.  A comparable situation exists today in some places – for example, across the hundreds of square kilometres of villages along the Nile near Luxor in Egypt;  the spires of the local mosques are particularly prominent at night because they are lit with blue fluorescent lights;  they dot the landscape about every kilometre or two from horizon to horizon.  This religious domination of the landscape was symbolic of the overwhelming dominance of cultural religious meanings that regulated the lives of people in such contexts.

Further consideration of the secularising influences on culture . Look at the following for comparing and contrasting traditional religious spirituality with contemporary secular spirituality . Viewing the presentation on mediaeval cathedrals and how this has a parallel in the secular consumer cathedrals of today.

The PowerPoint on mediaeval cathedrals highlighting the prominence of religion as a dominant cultural factor in mediaeval society.

Note the contrast with malls as like the new contemporary cathedrals.

The authority of god, the spiritual/moral power of the church (religion) and the political power were usually amalgamated into a single network of cultural religious meanings.  It covered all aspects of life and was relatively inescapable.  It gave people a sense of their own ‘station in life' within a system that was usually accepted without question;  it gave them meaning and purpose and a sense of personal dignity;  and it regulated their activity in minute detail.  Within this system, it would be difficult to find meanings and practices that did not have a religious overlay.  And all of this helped ensure (and enforce?) social stability.  It would have been difficult to contemplate cultural meanings outside the prevailing system – there appeared to be few if any alternatives;  if there were other religious groups present, they would have been in a minority and not likely to challenge the status quo.  Born into this system, individuals simply absorbed its meanings as reality – there was no sense that it was socially constructed;   any questioning of the system was likely to be judged as a deficiency in faith.

Six key meanings permeated the common spirituality in this context:-

  1. The centrality of god who was perceived as the creator and end of the human race as well as its judge.
  2. Life and religion were focused on heaven as the ‘true' life for which life on earth was a preparation;  this tended to make religious meanings the compelling spiritual and moral reference points for thinking and behaviour.
  3. The power of the church (religion) over individuals, usually in concert with political power, was absolute;  authorities were supreme;  deviants or heretics could be put to death;  many religious cultural rituals set the pattern for daily life in an annual cycle.
  4. Obedience was a prominent aspect of most human interactions.  Obedience to god was aligned with obedience to the church (religion).  Authorities, both religious and political, were respected without much question.
  5. Fear was a strong motivating factor;  fear of god merged into fear of religious and political authorities;  the idea of reward for the good and punishment of evil was a prominent moral motivation;  the ultimate fear was of eternal punishment in hell.
  6. Evil in the world was personalised in the form of the devil;  the devil – the ‘tempter' – was held responsible for much of went wrong in personal and social life.

There was a strong feeling of tight control over people's lives and spirituality.  The meanings underpinning their spirituality were a mix of belief, theology, opinion, fears and superstition.  One could speculate that the extent to which this profile varied for individuals was limited, even though it may have been likely to be different for the ruling class, clergy and the educated.

The unquestioning acceptance of religious meanings as reality reinforced a literal interpretation of sacred writings.  For example, the Genesis and Gospel stories were historicised.

9.  Changes away from a traditional religious spirituality understood in terms of change in cultural meanings

This section will consider only some of the changes in cultural meanings that have contributed to a move away from traditional spirituality.  The pattern of change since the middle ages needs to be identified even in broad outline because it not only describes historical, cultural change in spirituality, but also because a similar pattern is often evident at a psychological level in individuals when their traditional spirituality morphs into something that is more secular and individualistic.

A change from traditional religious spirituality was particularly evident in three areas of cultural meanings:-

  • 1.   Understanding of god and of the creator's role of the universe.
  • 2.   The power that religious authorities had over the lives and thinking of individuals;  less fear of religious authorities.
  • 3.   Decline in the prominence of religious ritual and religious references in social life.

The following, among many factors, contributed to the secularisation of spirituality in Europe (and later in the Americas) since the middle ages.

Movement of people into the developing cities.  There was (and still is the case to some extent) more stability, sameness and less variety to life in villages.  Large scale movement to the cities exposed people to a greater variety of occupations, interests and lifestyle components.  While there may still have been limited opportunities in the city, it expanded their thinking about life – even though the industrial revolution often resulted in a new form of domination of people's lives by work.  They could make comparisons between their lives and what others thought and did.  The cities were the breeding grounds for the notion of a popular, common culture that gradually differentiated from the official religious/political monoculture;   these were the first signs that there was scope for thinking differently about life.

Separation of church (religion) and state.  In the various formats with relative separation of church and state and various levels of democracy, there was some breakdown in the total dominance that the previous religious/political monoculture had exercised over people's thinking.  Eventually, people could not be legally executed for supposed heresy and witchcraft.  Fear of religion, and an accompanying fear of god, declined.  This supported the development of a more widespread sense of freedom, autonomy and individuality, even if people did not have unlimited scope to change their station in life.

Change away from the predominantly religious subject matter of art.  Previously most art was on traditional religious topics.  While the subject matter of art was not so much a change factor in itself, it was an indicator of changing cultural meanings;  and since the Renaissance there was much more humanistic and less religious art.  This was one of the first significant signposts of secularisation.

The rise of science, scientific thought and the enlightenment.  While the rise of scientific thought and enlightenment rationalism may have affected the educated more than the uneducated, in the emerging common or popular cultural meanings, it further eroded the plausibility and power of the previously unquestioned religious authority.  There were new ways of thinking about the cosmos and about human origins and purposes; and reason could provide a rationale for living along side a religious interpretation.  Some integrated these ideas within their developing spirituality and theology while others did not.  For example, evolutionary theory resulted in a polarisation of meanings between those who accepted it and those who retained a creationist account – while for some it was a reason for abandoning religious beliefs altogether.  Crawford & Rossiter (2006, pp. 72-76) provided an interpretation of this problem, showing how clashes arose between scientific and religious meanings and how this is evident in contemporary understandings of human origins.  They also identified problems related to children's learning to make distinctions between scientific and religious meanings.  If they do not learn to do this, there is a danger that they can dismiss religion on the basis of a naïve scientism.

Interpretation of human behaviour through the human sciences:  Psychology and sociology provided new relatively scientific ways of interpreting and explaining human behaviour.  In turn, these meanings led to different, not necessarily religious, ways of understanding personal development.  On the fringes of the human sciences, various self-help programs and para-psychological movements also developed.

Education:  Since the origins of compulsory schooling in the late 19th century, school education has not only increased the general level of public knowledge in numeracy and literacy, it has affected people's critical thinking.  It has helped them to become more discerning, and more independent and self-confident because they are better informed about social issues and more confident in their own judgment.  Gradually, education has raised both the general level of community education and the level of critical literacy – thus it has been important in advancing the agenda of individualism.

Technologies for the communication of cultural meanings.  As noted in an earlier section, technologies that ‘extended' the written and spoken word provided increased opportunities for exposure to different cultural meanings.  Traditional reference points like home, ethnicity, religion, school and nation might be expected to be basic sources for images of life and values;  other no less significant sources can be peers, social and recreational groups.  But in modern times these influences are superseded by the ‘storying' role of film and television with their meaning-embedded narratives about life that can eclipse the stories that have traditionally informed spiritual development and identity.  Gerbner (1992) drew attention to the significant change in traditional patterns of storytelling that was enabled by film and television: “We have moved away from the historic experience of humankind.  Children used to grow up in a home where parents told most of the stories.  Today television tells most of the stories to most of the people most of the time.”   Similarly, Australian scholars Eckersley et. al. (2006, p. 35) considered that “when a community abdicates the role of storytelling to the mass media, particularly commercial media, a focus on wellbeing or the good life is diminished to stories about feeling good.  These stories can have a very individual focus.”   This suggests that the media and advertising industries create a social reality that for many people has become their major moral and spiritual reference point.

All these examples of change factors worked in favour of the emergence of two new cultural meanings that would drive the development of secular individualistic spiritualities.

Firstly, there was the sense of an alternative set of popular cultural meanings about life that was more or less independent of the traditional religious view;  individuals could now compare what was expected formerly with what was encouraged, allowed or tolerated within the popular culture.  There were options for thinking about life that were not there before.  Whereas there had been one pervasive, monocultural, religious system that dominated cultural meanings, people were now becoming accustomed to multiple frames of reference for life's meaning.

Secondly, more attention and power were being given to the individual's own autonomous, personal frame of reference for providing the ultimate criteria for judging spiritual/moral matters.  The traditional cultural reference point in religion and religious authorities declined in plausibility and power;  it was becoming perceived as having more of an ‘advisory' role than a ‘normative' one.  While many would be inclined towards this more individualistic approach, others remained attached to the external authority as their prime frame of reference.

10.  Cultural meanings associated with a relatively secular, eclectic, individualistic spirituality

This section presents a tabular summary contrasting the different cultural meanings that informed both traditional and contemporary spiritualities.  It is a summary that has been used successfully with postgraduate education students in persuading them that the change in spirituality has been so substantial that not to take it into account would constitute a failure in the mission of Catholic school religious education.

The comparisons in Table 2 show how significant polarities have developed in the way people develop meanings that inform their lives.  In particular, they show how religion is referred to in different ways – from being the traditional, authoritative source of meaning to one of a number of possible resources that one can draw from as ‘advisory' rather than normative.  While not all individuals will fit comfortably within these descriptions, the contrasting indicators provide a useful picture of the polarities that developed in the cultural change process.  This summary has drawn particularly on the ideas of Eckersley (2005, pp. 2-15) and to a lesser extent on Crawford & Rossiter (2006) and Schweitzer (2004, 2007).  It is developed further in Rossiter (2011).

Table 2.   Contrasts between the cultural meanings underpinning traditional and contemporary spiritualities

Trends in cultural meanings in a relatively traditional society, and to some extent in individuals with a traditional religious spirituality

Trends in cultural meanings in contemporary Westernised societies, and in individuals with a secular, individualistic spirituality

Personal meaning was usually a social given.  A religious meaning system was received like a set package;  it was ‘taken-for granted' and internalised.

  • There was security in having a relatively ‘black and white' meaning system and moral code.
  • Individuals did not have to ‘search' for meaning;  they had a ready-made package.
  • The religious meaning system may have been experienced as somewhat harsh and oppressive, but it helped people make sense of their lives at several levels, answering the fundamental questions: Who am I? Where have I come from? Why am I here?

Meaning in life was now less a social given and more a matter of personal choice;   personal meaning was ‘constructed' by individuals for themselves, or chosen from a proliferation of options.

  • There was a challenge to individuals in constructing their own DIY (Do It Yourself) spirituality.
  • ‘Searching' for meaning and taking responsibility for developing one's own personal meaning system could be stressful.
  • The speed, scope and scale of economic, social and cultural change have made the past seemingly irrelevant and the future uncertain for many.  This seems to have created more ‘cultural agnosticism' about meaning, purpose and certainty in life.
  • Even if life's meaning was less clear, life itself became more comfortable, more varied, safer, healthier and longer.

Religious belief:  Beyond the mortal realm, people had a religious faith that not only provided them with a road map for life, but it gave them a sense of place in the cosmic scheme of things.

While many retained some form of religious belief, this was not nearly as absolute and binding as it once was.  The individual's own experience tended to became the touchstone for authenticity, and even for what was regarded as the ‘truth'.  While nominally linked with religion, some see a clear distinction between their own personal faith and the faith taught by traditional religious institutions (Schweitzer, 2004). 

Religious authority:   Religious spirituality (in the West) was sustained and validated by church authority.  Its plausibility depended on high regard for the church;  the notion of the authority of god underpinned church authority.

  • An emphasis on obedience to religious authorities and to god.

Authority of the individual:  The plausibility of religious authorities tended to be low.  Increasingly, individuals became their own spiritual authority, deciding for themselves on the basis of their own judgment about particular aspects of spirituality.   “People assumed that their lives are not predetermined by birth and social origin, and that every one has the right and also the responsibility to shape his or her life according to their own wishes and life plans.”(Schweitzer, 2007, p.90)  It is taken for granted that everyone has the right to choose their own faith and that no-one should interfere with their choices.

  • Little if any regard for religious authorities.
  • What suited the individual became the ultimate criteria for the utility of spirituality.

The existence and image of God:  There was a strong belief in the existence of god.  The image of god included the notions of:-  creator, all-powerful, benevolent, loving and caring for each individual, judge of good and bad, rewarder of the good and punisher of the evil, listens to people's prayers and requests for help.

A natural uncertainty about the existence of god became more prevalent.  Belief in a benevolent god was attractive and comforting , but not something that many individuals counted on or thought much about.

Family and community ties:  Children usually grew up in a close network of family and community relationships that largely defined their world – their values, beliefs, identity and station in life.

Family and community ties were loosened.  Consequently individuals appeared more open to various life options available in the wider culture, together with more individualism in their choices.

The world outside:  Most people knew relatively little of what lay outside their world, and of other ways of living (in pre-television times).

People know much more of the rest of the world and how differently others lived and thought.  Information about what was happening around the world was available instantaneously.

Social change and the predictability of life:  Much of life was predictable and what was not was explained in terms of the supernatural and religious belief.

Rapid social change resulted in much more uncertainty about life and the future.  Many accommodated to the uncertainty as ‘natural'.  (Others could not cope with the uncertainty so well, and identified with communities where meanings were more definite and authoritarian – a move back towards a more traditional setting).

11.  Initial conclusions:  General implications for church school religious education from the interpretation of change in the landscape of spirituality

Many religion teachers in church schools in Australia have more personal affinity with thinking in the right column than the left in table 1.  But in religious education, they feel their normative curriculum context sits mainly within the meanings in the left column, while most of their students are at home in the meanings in the other column (even if the description of a traditional spirituality today does not fit neatly within the left column).  And if their prescribed purpose in religious education is understood primarily as persuading young people that they need to engage with the church, this can be perceived by their students as wanting to shift their thinking and spirituality towards that of the left column;  and the students, and most of their teachers, know that there is no ready educational (or any other) formula that will make this happen.  The change in spirituality summarised in table 1, at least in Westernised countries, is considered not to be reversible.

Hence, it is proposed that the starting point for a more relevant religious education is to accept that a relatively secular spirituality is normal for most young people.  If this was taken into account more seriously in church school religious education documents, it could help change the focus from trying to eliminate and replace contemporary spirituality towards trying to diagnose and address its needs constructively – responding to the opportunity to enhance young people's spirituality whether it is religious or not.  And while access to the traditional religious heritage remains a valuable part of education in spirituality for secular youth, more specific attention needs to be given to content and pedagogy that take into account the healthy possibilities as well as the problems within the cultural meanings described in the right hand column.

References Click here for the references for this Section

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